[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]wp-content/uploads/SueArnold.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Sue Arnold is the CEO of California Gray Whale Coalition. She is a former Fairfax investigative journalist who regularly lobbies the US government in Washington DC, as well as the European Parliament and Commission on whale issues.[/author_info] [/author]
In the last four years, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has issued permits to various organizations allowing takes by harassment of approximately 1,602 southern sea otters. This figure represents more than half the sea otter population of the Central Coast. Since 1998, many southern sea otters have been captured, recaptured, anesthetized, and subjected to surgical implants and removal of transmitter devices from their stomachs.
An investigation into the use of Central Coast sea otters as marine laboratory rats is long overdue. Fish & Wildlife Service has a mandatory responsibility to protect animals listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Subjecting these animals to capture and recapture, anaesthetics and surgery is surely the stuff of a Dr. Strangelove movie. Yet the evidence demonstrates the Service has allowed and even encouraged invasive experiments.
Central Coast residents have been focused on the fate of 40 sea otters destined to be the “canaries in the mine” for PG&E’s high-energy seismic surveys (HESS). But in denying PG&E the HESS permit in November, the California Coastal Commission made moot the ensonifying experiment.
Since that denial, residents and conservation organizations have been attempting to find out what exactly is happening to the implanted otters.
A lack of proper responses by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has raised significantly more issues.
In fact, with so many unanswered questions and a continuing refusal to release the relevant permit(s), except under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, the public is entitled to ask whether the real facts are being deliberately withheld and if so, by whom? And more to the point, why?
If a species listed under the ESA can be subjected to years of highly invasive experiments at a time when the population estimates are demonstrating a slowing recovery, disease problems and high mortality by sharks, what is the point of legislation?
Let’s go back in time.
In September 2005, the Marine Mammal Center submitted an application for reauthorization to implant subcutaneous and abdominal radar transmitters in rehabilitated southern sea otters for purposes of enhancement associated with rehabilitation and post-release monitoring activities. It is unclear how many sea otters were allowed to be implanted or how many had been implanted in the past given this application was for a reauthorization.
Three years later, on April 7, 2008, a notice in the Federal Register advised as follows:
Applicant: U.S. Geological Survey -Western Ecological Research Center, Santa Cruz Field Station, Santa Cruz.
The applicant requests renewal and amendment of the permit to take up to 850 southern sea otters from the wild for the purpose of scientific research on the ecology of the species. This notification covers activities to be conducted by the applicant over a five-year period.
A permit to take 850 sea otters represents almost one-third of the population. The Notice does not indicate any details of the scientific research on the ecology of the species to be undertaken.
On July 18, 2008, Fish & Wildlife Service issued a final rule consistent with the Marine Mammal Commission recommendations in response to an application from the Western Ecological Research Center, U.S. Geological Survey, to renew and amend a permit authorizing the permit holder to conduct tagging studies and aerial surveys of California sea otters. The permit holder requested that the permit be renewed for an additional five years and amended to authorize an increased number of recaptures of animals implanted with recorders and several changes to research plans and protocols.
The Marine Mammal Commission (MMC) recommended that the Service approve the requested amendment, provided that the conditions contained in the existing permit remain in effect and that the proposed revisions to the research have been reviewed by the applicant’s Institutional Animal Care and Use committee. The Commission further recommended that the Service consult with the applicant to ensure that authorized takes are limited to the minimal number of animals necessary to produce statistically meaningful results, and the permit, if renewed, required that post-release monitoring be conducted to verify that the research is not having unanticipated adverse impacts on the population.
On October 31, 2008, the Service issued the amended permit. We have no idea of the numbers involved.
On April 7, 2009, in a letter headed Otter Mortalities Permit No. MA672624, addressed to the Western Ecological Research Center (WERC), U.S. Geological Survey, the Marine Mammal Commission, in consultation with its Committee of Scientific Advisors on Marine Mammals, reviewed the permit-holder’s final report on the deaths of three sea otters surgically implanted with time-depth recorders and VHF tags under Permit No. MA672624, and offered the following recommendation and comments.
Yet another unknown number of otters.
“The Marine Mammal Commission recommends that the Fish and Wildlife Service:
• authorize resumption of the research, provided that the proposed modifications to the permit-holder’s research protocols are implemented;
• request an explanation as to why the proposed modified research protocol does not include the option of using intra-operatively a single dose, broad-spectrum antibiotic that has a longer half-life than those currently used to provide additional protection from bacterial infection; and
• request that the permit-holder clarify what would constitute “excessive stress” as discussed in the proposed modified research protocol.”
No further discussion of excessive stress or stress is canvassed in any of the documents that the writer has researched. It would be illogical to assume that capturing a sleeping sea otter, transporting the animal to shore to be anaesthetized and subjected to surgery would not be stressful. Stress can have major impacts on immune systems and reproduction.
Correspondence to WERC continues:
“Three sea otters (one male and two females) died during November 2008 at Big Sur, California, subsequent to capture, handling, and surgical implantation of TDR and VHF tags under Permit No. MA672624. Only two of the carcasses were recovered. The necropsy reports for the animals identify bacterial sepsis as the likely primary cause of death in both cases.
“Regarding otter 1093, it appears that bacteria (Vibrio alginolyticus) gained access to the subcutis and body cavity through the surgical incisions and then spread to the local lymph nodes and beyond, resulting in septicemia and death.”
Whether these are the same permits or whether there are two permits or a renewed permit which now includes ensonification of sea otters for the PG&E HESS is unclear. Nor is it clear if this is the permit referred to in the April 7, 2008 notice and if so, how tagging studies, aerial surveys and implanted recorders will produce relevant evidence on the ecology of the species. Evidence that has already been obtained in prior studies. Without notices for public comment in the Federal Register and any indication of the purpose of implanting a “small” number of sea otters in 2008, it’s anyone’s guess.
Moving on to the PG&E HESS, the following information is important.
According to the Federal Register Notice of 9/26/12,“due to the lack of data on the effects of air guns on sea otters, in addition to project-related mitigation monitoring, the Service has recommended that PG&E and LDEO use the survey as an opportunity to investigate the potential effects of air guns on sea otters.”
An extraordinary act by an Agency charged with mandatory responsibility for protecting listed animals from harm.
Federal Notices published a Proposed Incidental Harassment Authorization by Fish & Wildlife Service to take by harassment, “small numbers” of southern sea otters for a period of 2.5 months beginning on October l5, 2012 and ending December 31, 2012.
For a small take analysis, the statute and legislative history do not expressly require a specific type of numerical analysis, leaving the determination of “small” to the agency’s discretion. Factors considered in our small numbers determination include the following:
(1) The number of southern sea otters inhabiting the proposed impact area is small relative to the size of the southern sea otter population. The number of southern sea otters that could potentially be taken by harassment in association with the proposed activity is 352, less than 13 per cent of the estimated population size of 2,792.
It’s extremely doubtful any independent scientist would regard 13% of a population as a “small number”. At the same time, in identifying 13% as a “small number” a very concerning precedent is created making a mockery of the definition of “small”. The recommendation by the MMC to limit the take to the minimal number of animals is ignored.
Under the heading of “Monitoring of potential impacts on sea otters of Seismic Surveys, Diablo Canyon,” the following statement is made by Dr. Tinker:
A proposal by US Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center and California Department of Fish & Game Office of Spill Prevention and Response Principal Investigator Dr M.T. Tinker, Supervisory Research Biologist, USGS.
Background: The coastal regions to the north and south of Diablo Canyon Power Plant (DCPP) provide vital habitat for a relatively large proportion (~23%) of the threatened southern sea otter population. The proposed High Energy Seismic Survey (HESS) in the vicinity of DCPP, represents a potentially significant disturbance to certain marine wildlife species in the area. However, to-date there is a paucity of information as to the sensitivity of sea otters to acoustic disturbances of this nature, and thus little basis for estimating the magnitude of the impacts on individual sea otter behaviour and/or population level vital rates.
We propose to address this information gap by using the proposed seismic surveys as a natural experiment, measuring behavioural and demographic responses (if any) to the acoustic disturbance vent. The proposed work would provide a real-time monitoring infrastructure with which to detect and measure levels of harassment caused by the surveys, as required by US Fish and Wildlife Service, while at the same time providing useful information on behavioural response thresholds as a function of sound exposure for sea otters.
We will target both resident females and territorial males in kelp-dominated habitat as well as animals found in the open water areas of Estero Bay. Initial capture operations will begin on October 1, 2012 and conclude on or before October 20, 2012. If required, additional captures will be conducted in early summer 2013 to achieve desired sample sizes for the second year of seismic surveys.
Dr. Tinker then lists at length the extent of health parameters which will be measured and asserts that the flipper tags, VHF transmitter and Time Depth Recorders (TDRs) are all activities covered by an existing federal permit and institutional animal care and use (IACUC) permit issued to the principal investigator.
All very reassuring except that there is no reference to any permit number nor a copy of the existing federal permit. Nor is it available on request. The only way to access this permit is by a Freedom of Information application. A lawyer from the Center for Biological Diversity has indicated that having to appeal for a permit under a FOIA is “very unusual”; however an Agency has the right to make information difficult to access. Nor is there any proper reference to or copy of an IACUC permit issued to the principal investigator. The public, presumably, should be satisfied with his word.
The public has a right to know whether any Institution set up to ensure proper care of animals subjected to experiments has properly considered the impacts. Has this Institution adequately addressed the impacts of stress––on communication, on prey, on reproduction? Exactly what are the terms of reference of any IACUC permit?
The Western Ecological Research Center (WERC) on its website has the following information:
“To learn more about the ecology of the southern sea otter, scientists have implanted VHF radio transmitters and time-depth recorders (TDRs) in sea otters at multiple sites throughout their range. These radio-tagged otters are then followed closely by field workers for up to 5 years to monitor their survival, reproductive success, behaviour and vital signs as they dive and forage for food.
“This research has also highlighted the extreme degree of individual dietary specialization in the southern sea otter, and the significance of such specialisation for individual fitness and population dynamics. In addition, detailed health profiles are being developed for the radio-tagged study animals and beached carcasses are being examined and tissues analysed in an effort to determine important causes of death in sea otters.”
Another question. Under what permit? Is this the permit Dr. Tinker refers to as allowing the seismic studies? If not, then isn’t the permit which Dr. Tinker refers to as giving authority for the seismic testing a repeat of a study which is already underway in terms of establishing the otters’ ecology and health issues?
How many animals are allowed to be taken under the WERC experiment outlined in the previous paragraphs?
At this stage, without knowledge of the numbers included in the WERC experiment, the Service had authorized permits for a take of 1,202 sea otters.
Indeed, one of the questions that arises is whether these permits actually spelt out consent to and proper assessment of an experiment which exposed 40 sea otters to continuous underwater noise exposure at high frequency levels for two and a half months night and day?
Another question. Why has the Federal permit application, for an arguably very controversial experiment, not been made public? Can Dr. Tinker advise the date of any Federal Register Notice with an application for a permit to ensonify 40-60 southern sea otters for a period of over two months other than the IHA notice?
The IHA document also indicates that captured animals would be tracked through September 30, 2015. Dr. Tinker acknowledges that beginning in winter/spring 2014, after completion of the second set of seismic surveys, “attempts will be made to re-capture all study animals in order to retrieve TDR bio-logging instruments.” Methods for re-captures are essentially identical to those of the initial captures. Recaptured otters will be anesthetized and archival TDR instruments surgically explanted for data extraction.
But wait. The California Coastal Commission denied PG&E a permit to conduct HESS on the Central Coast. So what happens to the 40 implanted sea otters?
Next questions. What are the legalities of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service ignoring the impending decision of the Coastal Commission? How is the ensonifying experiment allowed to proceed when there is no Coastal Commission consent to any permit and no HESS? What is now the purpose of the experiment?
Hang on a minute. Weren’t there similar experiments between l998 and 2004? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper indicating sea otters were captured, anesthetized and surgically implanted with VHF transmitters and archival time-depth recorders between l998 and 2004 using previously established methods. According to the paper, the take was for 118 animals.
Whoops! There were two more permits for takes in the last four years. On July 25, 2008, the Service issued two permits to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to renew and amend a permit to increase from 50 to 100 the maximum number of southern sea otters that may be taken annually; authorize the conduct of rehabilitation and related activities under an enhancement permit; and authorize scientific research on live-stranded, captive-held, or released southern sea otters.
One permit authorized the rescue, rehabilitation and release of stranded otters and other authorized scientific research on the subject animals.
So we have another 400 otters to add to the number of takes, giving an overall take figure of 1,602 otters. More than half the population of 2,760 animals, give or take a few stranded otters. Exactly what kind of scientific research is Monterey Bay Aquarium carrying out on these animals?
That makes 1,720 the total number of implanted sea otters since l998––as far as we know.
On January 15, 2009 Representative Sam Farr of California and co-sponsors introduced a bill, H.R. 556, in the U.S. House of Representatives to promote the protection and recovery of southern sea otters. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, which held a public hearing on its provisions in the spring of 2009. Based on results of the hearing, the bill was revised, approved by the full House of Representatives, and forwarded to the Senate for its consideration where it died.
Interestingly, Representative Lois Capps was one of the co-sponsors of the bill. Given her recent statements of support for the PG&E HESS, the shifting electoral stands or sands of our politicians are curious.
The summary of the bill below was written by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress. It is important to note that the bill does not include any suggestion of using sea otters as experimental animals for high-energy seismic surveys and that the emphasis is on protection, mitigation of potential impacts and the causes of mortality.
Section 2 –
Requires the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS), to carry out a Recovery and Research Program for southern sea otter populations along the coast of California that includes:
(1) monitoring, analysis, and assessment of population demographics, health, mortality, and life history parameters; and
(2) implementation of measures to reduce or eliminate potential factors limiting populations that are related to marine ecosystem health or human activities.
Requires the Secretary to:
(1) appoint persons to a southern sea otter recovery implementation team as authorized under the Endangered Species Act of 1973 within a year;
(2) establish a peer-reviewed, merit-based process to award competitive grants for research regarding such otters and for projects assisting the recovery of otter populations; and
(3) establish a peer review panel to provide scientific advice and guidance to prioritize proposals for grants.
Authorizes research grant topics to include:
(1) causes of sea otter mortality;
(2) southern sea otter demographics and natural history;
(3) effects and sources of pollutants, nutrients, and toxicants on such otters and sequestration of contaminants;
(4) effects and sources of infectious diseases and parasites affecting such otters;
(5) limitations on the availability of food resources for such otters and the impacts of food limitation on southern sea otter carrying capacity;
(6) interactions between southern sea otters and coastal fisheries and other human activities in the marine environment;
(7) assessment of the keystone ecological role of sea otters in southern and central California’s coastal marine ecosystems; and
(8) assessment of the adequacy of emergency response and contingency plans.
Authorizes funded recovery projects to include projects to:
(1) protect and recover southern sea otters;
(2) reduce, mitigate, or eliminate potential factors limiting southern sea otter populations that are related to human activities; and
(3) implement emergency response and contingency plans.
Requires the Secretary, within 12 months, to report to Congress on:
(1) the status of southern sea otter populations;
(2) implementation of the research and grant programs; and
(3) endangered species consultations regarding southern sea otters.
Requires the Secretary, within 24 months and every five years thereafter, to report to Congress and the public on:
(1) an evaluation of southern sea otter health, causes of southern sea otter mortality, and the interactions of southern sea otters with California’s coastal marine ecosystems;
(2) an evaluation of actions taken to improve otter health, reduce mortality, and improve southern sea otter habitat;
(3) recommendation for actions to improve otter health, reduce the occurrence of human-related mortality, and improve the health of such coastal marine ecosystems; and
(4) recommendations for funding to implement this Act.
Finally, an important management tool for any species protected under the ESA or the Marine Mammal Protection Act is known as the Potential Biological Removal (PBR). In lay language, this is the allowable “quota” for anthropogenic mortality.
In the case of the southern sea otters, the PBR level is eight animals. Given that, according to the Friends of the Otter, 50% of sea otters who die are never recovered, and at least two dead otters have been confirmed, the potential for serious long-term impacts on the population cannot be ignored.
Back in the bad old days, the Russians nearly wiped out the otters.
Now it looks like a down-home show.
How many implanted otters are out there? How many have died? What are the long-term impacts on these gentle creatures hauled out of the water and subjected to surgery, implants and anesthesia?
An investigation into the use of endangered species for highly invasive experiments should be undertaken as a matter of urgency for the State and Federal Agencies involved. In the end, it’s the Endangered Species Act at stake.
 Federal Register 18808 Vol.73, No. 67, Monday, April 7, 2008 Notices
 Prey choice and habitat use drive sea otter pathogen exposure in a resource limited coastal system. Christine K. Johnson, Martin T. Tinker et al, January 21, 2009